Cubs

Koji Uehara would add another dimension to Cubs bullpen

Koji Uehara would add another dimension to Cubs bullpen

The Cubs are reportedly on the verge of adding another pitcher who’s notched the final out of a World Series as Theo Epstein’s front office builds out the bullpen for manager Joe Maddon.

The Cubs are nearing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with Koji Uehara, according to Nikkan Sports in Japan, which would open up even more possibilities for the defending champs in front of All-Star closer Wade Davis.

The Cubs made their biggest splash during this week’s winter meetings at National Harbor in Maryland by trading young outfielder Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals for Davis, who finished off Game 5 in the 2015 World Series.

Uehara closed out the 2013 World Series for the Boston Red Sox, the beginning of three straight seasons where he put up 20-plus saves. The Cubs have not confirmed an agreement is in place.

The Cubs needed another lefty presence with Mike Montgomery – the pitcher on the mound when the 108-year drought ended in November – moving to the rotation and Travis Wood likely leaving as a free agent.

Uehara throws right-handed, but he shuts down left-handed hitters (.183 batting average, .555 OPS across 800 at-bats) and has appeared in seven postseason series after a distinguished career in Japan.

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Uehara will turn 42 the day after Opening Day. But an array of relievers should help preserve Uehara, strengthen Carl Edwards Jr. (who’s generously listed at 170 pounds) and maybe prevent the late-season injuries that marginalized Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop during the playoffs.

“We’re going to try to build up a ton of depth,” Epstein said. “We’re going to try to build up a really talented, deep bullpen with a lot of different options that you can use in close games.

“Instead of three late-game options, it would be ideal if you had five or six. And you could always like who you’re turning to in the ‘pen and not feel the need to use a Rondon four out of five times.

“(We could) use them every other day and occasional back-to-backs. And that would help keep them fresh down the stretch – and help keep them strong in October.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."